BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 01 APR 12
Featured in
Issue 146

Face Time

What does our interest in the face tell us about contemporary methods of communication?

BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 01 APR 12

In Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona (1966), a boy wakes up in what appears to be a morgue. He puts on his glasses and seems to touch the lens of the camera, but – as is revealed in the next shot – he’s actually caressing a larger-than-life, blurred image of Liv Ullmann’s face, which blends with that of her co-star, Bibi Andersson. In the final scene of Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975), the young director pays a mocking homage to Bergman’s fascination with both the entanglements of love and close-ups of women’s faces. After mouthing profundities pilfered from classic Russian literature, interspersed with absurdist quips (‘I never want to marry, I just want to get divorced’), the faces of the two female protagonists merge into a composite – like Andersson and Ullmann in Persona.

Bergman’s faces on screens – overlapping, touched, with undercurrents of Oedipal struggle, narcissism and paranoia – are strangely clear-sighted premonitions of Facebook friends responding to each other on touchscreens. Obviously, faces have always been objects of fascination and scrutiny. But the focus has become more complicated and intensified by recent changes in technological and socio-economic conditions, such as the accelerating impact biometric detection software has had on the urban environment and on social media (facial recognition phone apps already exist), or the Guy Fawkes masks that are ubiquitous at Occupy demonstrations. There is even a resurgence of interest in facial motifs amongst those who have a history of preferring more abstract themes and forms, such as Frank Nitsche’s recent paintings or curator Anselm Franke’s travelling exhibition ‘Animism’, which is currently on view at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, and which, among other things, explores facial anthropomorphisms.

What does the contemporary interest in reading faces (or masks) mean? Is it a regression, indicating a tendency to indulge in the anodyne familiarity of the human face, while shying away from tackling complex abstract problems? Or is it an indication of a heightened awareness of how the face, in the digital age, has become a site of algorithmic and normative determination – and yet still continues, in its expressions, to fluctuate between revelation and concealment, authenticity and fabrication?

Because we can’t fully control all of its muscles, it’s a commonplace to say that the human face is a universal site of truthful expressions and inner conflict. An entire field of research is based on this assumption,and scientists such as the American psychologist Paul Ekman, who developed a detection system for what he calls facial ‘micro expressions’, have had a tremendous influence on everything from Pixar-type animation to airport surveillance.

There is another commonplace that sounds like the exact opposite: that the face in modern society is really a mask, formed by aping mass culture and social norms (glaringly so in the case of Botox and plastic surgery). ‘The face of the most beautiful girl becomes ugly by a striking resemblance to the face of a film star on whom it was carefully modelled’, wrote Theodor W. Adorno in Aesthetic Theory (1970). Apart from the barely concealed misogynist scorn of his statement, Adorno fails his own standards of dialectic thinking in that he perpetuates an age-old contradiction: face as truth/beauty versus face as lie/ugly (the ‘lie’in this case being conformity with a mass media ideal). Wolfgang Tillmans’s portraits of Lady Gaga, which were published last summer in i-D magazine, provide a great counter-argument: Gaga was shot wearing relatively little make-up, which not only revealed how expertly the pop star had previously directed attention away from her facial features, but also emphasized how much, with disarming conviviality, she actually resembles her ‘ordinary’ teenage fans.

Both conviviality and scorn are part and parcel of Facebook, which the film The Social Network (2010) depicts as being triggered by Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to compensate for not being allowed into Harvard clubs, and being rejected by a girl. ‘Truth is, she has a nice face, and I need to do something to take my mind off her,’ he declares before creating the nucleus of his empire by hacking into the university online ‘Face Books’ and rearranging them into, a site that paired images of female students and asked users to decide who was ‘hotter’. Violation of privacy and cyber-harassment: Zuckerberg is like Bergman’s face-touching boy transformed into a bully. A recently leaked ‘abuse violation’ handbook for Facebook content editors revealed that photographs of ‘sleeping people with things drawn on their faces’ were considered unacceptable, whereas images of ‘crushed heads’ were OK ‘as long as no insides are showing’.

Counter to this tendency of online scrutiny, there’s also an interest in bringing attention to the face by obscuring it: in art, few visual tropes have been imitated as much as John Baldessari’s heads vanishing behind dots, or John Stezaker’s split or collaged faces. Electronic dance culture has a tradition of artists remaining anonymous by hiding their faces. A striking recent example is London-based musician and producer SBTRKT who wears tribal masks by anonymous designer A Hidden Place, who, in a recent interview with, described them as an ‘imagined commune’ of influences ranging from Aztec to Congolese.

However, as much as there may be liberation in anonymity, there is also potential repression: from online snarks to lynch mobs. The right to free speech implies that you’re free to show your face. Perhaps Bergman’s obsession with faces ultimately stems from this, too: after all, the actresses in his films discuss female sexual desire in a way that was unprecedented at the time.

All of which provides a key to understanding Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (1489–90), which was recently included in the hugely popular ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ at London’s National Gallery, and ‘Renaissance Faces: Masterpieces of Italian Portraiture’ at Berlin’s Bode Museum. The universal appeal of the painting resides not so much in its back-story (a portrait commissioned by the Duke of Milan of his young mistress, Cecilia Gallerani) but in the relationship between the sitter’s face and that of the animal resting in her arms. While she is dreamily relaxed, her face turned sideways, the ermine’s stare is directed towards the viewer. The animal becomes more than a merely symbolic attribute of the sitter (signifying her honour and purity, as well as being one of the Duke’s emblems), but, by way of the precise way it’s presented, a proxy for the different aspects of her character. Even as her facial features signal the kind of subdued grace that was expected of a woman in her elevated position, those of the ermine imply a more restless, scrutinizing mind: Gallerani spoke fluent Latin and discussed philosophy with Milanese intellectuals. It’s as if her ‘own’ face is a mask, adjusted to societal expectation, whereas the animal’s provides the truthful expression of her personality. This seems startingly modern, even media-savvy; as if avatars were part of the Italian Renaissance. Some things never change. There is no way out of the conundrum of the face: it both reveals and conceals, and is as much an invitation for repression as it is a call for liberation.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.